Jamile Tellez Lieberman joined Esperanza as the new Sr. Vice President of Research, Community Engagement, and Health Equity. (Photo: Courtesy/Jamile Tellez)

On Monday, June 13, Dr. Jamile Tellez Lieberman joined Esperanza as the new Sr. Vice President of Research, Community Engagement, and Health Equity.  She is a member of the Latino Health Collective in Philadelphia, and a committee member for the national organization the DrPH Coalition.  With this coalition, she has served on a taskforce for the Tule River Indian Tribe in California. Dr. Tellez Lieberman will now serve the North Philadelphia communities alongside Esperanza’s leadership and staff, in a role that she considers an expression of her calling and mission.  Jamile sat down with Impacto to share her story with our readers.

Dr. Tellez Lieberman, you’ve joined Esperanza’s team to bring your public health expertise to our community members.  Tell us a little bit about your background – what brought you here, both to the public health field and to North Philadelphia?

Well, I grew up in Tennessee, but I wasn’t born there. I was born in La Paz, Bolivia. I was adopted by a white woman when I was just a few days old.  My mother grew up in Miami and went to medical school in Spain and France, so she spoke Spanish, and by the time she finished medical training, it was a little bit late for her to have her own children. I was the first one to be adopted. And then she went on to adopt five more kids who are my younger siblings. She did this on her own.  She was the breadwinner of the house, and she is still the glue that binds us all together.  So always, growing up, I had this inspirational powerhouse woman that I looked up to, because she defied lots of expectations about what women should do, and what careers they had. She determined her own path and fate, and fought for what she believed in, which is something that has shaped and inspired me. She inspired me to work towards that – being independent and forging my own path.

Jamile Tellez. (Photo: Courtesy/Jamile Tellez)

In terms of how I got into public health, like many kids who grow up in households with medical doctors, I was very influenced to do medicine. That was the plan, for a long time. But when I started taking classes about medicine in college, I got a little bit disillusioned. We were learning about chemical reactions on the microscopic, cellular level. And I kept thinking to myself: I just wish I could keep people from getting sick in the first place.  By the time you’re treating diseases, you’re too far down the river. I would rather travel upstream, closer to the source, figure out why people get sick in the first place and deal with that. I took a medical anthropology class where I learned a little bit about what is known as the social determinants of health, or the different factors that are not about the physical body.  Social determinants are things like environment, politics, racism, power, economics, etc. I learned how these factors shape the ways people understand their illnesses, and how they become sick and what their behavior is when they are sick.  And that was the moment I realized this was what I wanted to do – to understand and influence health, before people get sick and need treatment.

Jamile Tellez. (Photo: Courtesy/Jamile Tellez)

After graduating from college with a degree in International Studies and a minor in Public Health, I came to Philadelphia to Drexel University’s Dornsife School of Health to pursue a master’s degree in Public Health. I had a wonderful experience – I met so many amazing people and fell in love with Philly and all the different communities, which are so diverse, so vibrant, so different from rural Tennessee where I grew up. There were so many Latinos and immigrants, and so much to learn and experience. 

After I finished my master’s degree, I decided to continue on toward a doctoral degree so I could have even more skills to become a leader in public health.  I knew I didn’t want to just be professor and do research, though.  I wanted to lead change. I want to work directly with people, not sit in a cubicle and run data sets all day and produce papers and then go speak at conferences and leave it at that.  That wasn’t enough for me.  So, I applied for a doctoral program called a DrPH instead of a traditional PhD, because the DrPH requires a community-based component. I had to have a community member sitting on my dissertation committee to make sure the community perspective was included. For the DrPH, I had to do applied research in the community, which takes a lot of time and relationship-building.

Jamile Tellez. (Photo: Courtesy/Jamile Tellez)

In my field, sometimes the people in the communities we are serving get lost in the shuffle and left behind. Their perspectives are considered the last box to check. That perspective is totally backwards; we need to start with people in communities and build from there. To me, this is values and morals, the morality of public health and what public health really means for humanity. For me, public health is more than a career. It’s a lifestyle, and a philosophical – almost religious – choice that I’m making about how I live my life. I want to spend my time on this earth serving humanity. I knew I was not meant to stay in academia – although I am a researcher, everything I do in public health starts and ends with the people.

Clearly the community is very important to you.  Can you tell us a little bit about some of your work with different communities?

I was involved in my advisor’s lab – Dr. Ana Martinez-Donate – and we conducted a lot of community-based things we studied is the situation where the same community is affected by many different health issues at the same time, because those health issues are all connected by the same underlying causal factor. In Philly, we’ve seen a lot of co-occurrences of mental health issues, substance abuse, violence, and HIV.  We find it’s because there are underlying factors causing this situation – factors related to poverty, oppression, historical trauma against certain people, and the like. In the past, researchers would study these conditions separately, but we wanted to study how they interact, and determine points where we could address more than one condition at a time, by addressing their common causes. In the process, we partnered with amazing community-based organizations like the Philadelphia AIDS Consortium, Women Organized Against Rape, and others.  It’s important that the study was done the right way, with community partners and residents.

I’ve also worked on another, more national project, which was the subject of my dissertation. The purpose of that project was to understand what happens when a parent gets deported or is at risk of deportation in terms of how children’s health and well-being is affected. We recruited families where a parent had been deported – recruiting at least one caregiver and one child from ages 13 to 17.  We followed these families for six months, collected survey data, and conducted interviews, to understand the changes that were happening to children and their families. We asked, how are children’s health being affected? How is their schooling affected? How are the families’ economic and financial health affected? The study also recruited a control group, non-separated families. These were families with a child aged 13 to 17, with parents at risk of deportation, but luckily, they had not yet experienced separation. We followed them for six months, to compare the two kinds of families.  We worked hard to build relationships with many different people and community-based organizations in the US and Mexico. I was a project coordinator for that study, and it changed my life, because I got attached to the kids. But our hands were tied in many ways. How could we really help them? We had child psychologists on the team to do counseling, and we were trained to do trauma informed work. But it wasn’t enough for me. I understand the value of the study, but I wanted to be able to fix the problem, not just understand it. I want to do that same level of science, but I only if I know something good will come out of it. I only want to do work the community will benefit from.

What are your goals for your work at Esperanza?

I want to pursue funding for research that has a community component, not only looking at solutions but trying them out. And I want to involve the community in the research and solutions, because it’s ridiculous that communities cannot study themselves. Why shouldn’t communities be able to have to be able to do research on a competitive level, and then devise their own solutions?  Community residents are the experts on their own lives.  They are the ones most equipped to generate strategies. And my job should be just to help them realize it I want to say I’m here; I have these skills, I would like to give them to you – let’s see what we can do to lift everybody up. I would like to help generate change on a community level. Public health is not about pills and procedures, it’s about policies and partnerships. It’s about love and for me, this is how I show love to my brothers and sisters – by advancing public health. The goal is to show love to communities, to people, and this is the way I’ve chosen to do it.


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